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Parenting and politics: Long commutes, public scrutiny make elected life hard for new moms

CBC with Melanee Thomas 15 June 2018

Three years after Premier Rachel Notley appointed Alberta’s first gender-balanced cabinet, women juggling politics and new parenthood remain challenged by the very different demands of the two roles.

In a candid and wide-ranging interview on The Ledge podcast, Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean revealed that she was unprepared for the intense public scrutiny and the toll of frequent commutes between Edmonton and her Calgary-Varsity constituency.

“I must admit that I definitely jumped into it (politics),” said McLean. On reflection, the lifestyle of being a busy politician in the public spotlight was more than what she expected.

“You want it so badly that people can tell you what it’s actually like, and you just think, ‘Oh yeah, I can hack that, or overcome that,'” McLean said.

McLean had filled out her nomination papers to seek another term as MLA,  but announced in May that she was withdrawing from the race.

It came after McLean took stock of her priorities and her desire to return to a legal career that had barely started at the time of the 2015 provincial election.

Hard decision

“It was a hard decision to make,” said McLean.

The rookie MLA was appointed to cabinet 10 days before she delivered her son in February 2016, and she only took three weeks off work afterward. She was aware the public was watching her with curiosity and expectations.

“Do I take off more time, because that’s something all women are entitled to, or do I take the perspective of showing that I can do it all?”

Of the three cabinet ministers who have had babies while in office, only Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley is intent on seeking re-election.

University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas says the public is tougher on politicians who are mothers, making them reluctant to take time away from a high-pressure job.

Different standards

Public perception is “very gendered,” said Thomas.

Fathers of young children are “lauded” because the public assumes there is a female spouse at home looking after the kids, she said.  But the tables are turned for women in a political role.

“People don’t assume there’s a father at home or another parent at home so we end up getting a lot of really negative pushback towards women,” said Thomas.

Despite her decision not to run again, McLean said more systems are in place for women politicians who have babies while in office.

It’s now easier to get a security pass to the legislature for a spouse, and there are change tables outside the legislature chamber.

The full interview with McLean can be heard on The Ledge, episode #20